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The River Wife

Random House, 2007


From acclaimed novelist Jonis Agee, whom The New York Times Book Review called "a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape," comes the sweeping story of four generations of women that unfolds along the current and the shores of the mighty Mississippi river.In 1811, when a great earthquake rocks the peaceful cove of New Madrid, Missouri, Annie Lark finds herself pinned under the massive roof beam of her home. With little hope of freeing their trapped daughter, and the river rapidly rising, the family says a final, tearful goodbye and leaves the young woman to her fate. Within days, French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, out scavenging nearby abandoned houses, rescues the girl from the brink of death and nurses her back to health. Soon, Annie learns to love this strong, brooding man and resolves to live out her life as his River Wife. Together they build a new community called "Jacques' Landing."More than a century later, in 1930, Hedie Rails comes to Jacques' Landing to marry Clement Ducharme, a direct descendent of the fur trapper and river pirate. The young couple begins their life together in the very house Jacques built for Annie so long ago. When, night after late night, mysterious phone calls take Clement from their home, a pregnant Hedie finds comfort in Annie's old leather bound journals. But when the pages tell of sinister dealings and horrendous misunderstandings that spelled out tragedy for the rescued bride, Hedie fears that her own life is paralleling Annie's, and that history is repeating itself with Jacques' kin. But the journal entries do not end with Annie. Emerging from the pages are three other women who helped to shape Jacques Ducharme's life — Omah, the freed slave who joins his side as a river raider; his second wife, Laura; and their daughter, Maddie. Each relay the haunting tale of this enigmatic, industrious, and ultimately dangerous man, their stories weaving together with Hedie's, as the journals serve not only as a guide to the newest River Wife at Jacques' Landing, but also, perhaps, a warning.Jonis Agee vividly portrays a lineage of love and heartbreak, passion and deceit against the backdrop of the nineteenth-century South. The five women of The River Wife come to discover that blind devotion cannot keep the truth at bay, nor the past from flowing into the present. — from the publisher

Make sandwiches and turn off the phone, because The River Wife is a novel you won't put down. It is a capacious, robust story grounded in a fascinating time and place, written at a high pitch with firm control. The women are terrific, the men are crazed, the dogs and horses are as real as people. With her mythic vision, Agee has created a whole new version of family out of catastrophe, passion, treachery and blood. — Sandra Scofield, author of Occasions of Sin

The River Wife is a stunning saga that sweeps you up in its mystery, its meticulous accounting of period details, its pinpoint plotting, and its clear-eyed evocation of character and place. Jonis Agee has written a novel, in the tradition of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, that brings an unforgettable family to life and traces their deeds and consequences through four generations. The Ducharme women are strong enough to survive all manner of evil, and tender enough to never lose sight of the human spirit. This story of secrets, ghosts, courage, and family will grab hold of you from the first page and hold you to the gorgeous and haunting end. — Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever

The charismatic, wicked, unstoppable Jacques Ducharme, loved and feared along a lawless stretch of the Mississippi River, "put together a life from his own fearlessness," and generations of women, and men too, lived and loved and suffered under his spell. This vivid and original tale reminds us that for better or worse, we are products of those whose name or blood or land or ambitions we share. Jonis Agee is a marvelous storyteller, and The River Wife is a complex and irresistible saga in the tradition of classic Southern fiction. — Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Luncheon of the Boating Party

The River Wife is an ambitious multigenerational family saga about the women in a Mississippi river pirate's life. Jonis Agee shows us a world hauntingly askew, filled with secrets, heartbreaking love, even buried treasure. She transports the reader to a vivid and often violent past that spills onto the new — and often unsuspecting — generations in both tragic and triumphant ways. — Lisa See, bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

What a grand and gorgeous novel this is: passionate, stirring, filled with action, intrigue, romance, and surprise. Jonis Agee's The River Wife is glorious. — Ron Hansen, author of Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus, Isn't It Romantic?

This is the book keeping me up nights. — Birchbark Books

Agee's long-awaited fifth novel is more than simply a work of fiction; rather, it's an all-consuming experience. This mesmerizing saga teeming with memorable characters, sharp depictions of frontier life, and lucid, beautifully wrought prose will haunt readers long afterward. — Booklist

Agee delivers an enthralling family saga. ... Lush historical detail, a plot brimming with danger, love and betrayal, and a magnificent cast. — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

A catfish stew of a novel . . . addictive. — Kirkus Reviews

A historical novel that rewires the rules with a unique gothic elegance. ... their struggles with love and family are real, and their emotions are fierce, thanks to Agee's careful attention. ... [Agee's] Southern gothic prose is raw and graceful, as she drenches her characters in emotions too real to be diffused by a romantic filter. Men and women fall in love quickly and viscerally. When mothers lose their children, they either withdraw and wither, or they lash out with a murderous temper. Husbands and wives who want to remain faithful are still fanned by both desire and guilt. And women in love will sacrifice what's necessary to push back the wildness of the river. — San Diego Union-Tribune

Filled with high Southern gothic flavor, the narrative is epic in scope, covering a series of generations and bursting with entwined layers of plot tension, sex, violence and intrigue. ... The writing throughout is lush, as the author examines the addictive allure of risk, along with the blessings and curses of family ties, especially those formed by marriage. — Los Angeles Times

Jonis Agee's The River Wife sprawls across generations of women and pirate men, enfolding love and grief and complicity. Agee's narrative is as deep as it is broad, peopled by finely drawn characters of thought-provoking complexity. ... Agee's prose is contemplative and lovely. As Hedie comes "to hold hands with every dead person" who has preceded her in her home, she is guided and brought to understanding by their stories. She is haunted, both literally and figuratively, by their presence but these specters bring not fear, but wisdom, acceptance and peace. — Denver Post

This engaging novel traces the loves and losses of three generations of women. ... With Annie metaphorically and literally haunting the novel, Agee seems to suggest that she cannot be silenced. Literary ghosts are almost always female, giving voice to those that the living world has rendered powerless. Just as the ghost in Toni Morrison's Beloved is an infant and the narrator of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is a murdered girl, Annie, although twice abandoned, is given immortality. — Washington Post Bookworld

Pirates, the legacy of slavery, natural history, romance, and Southern Gothic tradition combine in Jonis Agee's atmospheric new novel. ... Fans of Southern Gothic will ... find The River Wife a savory gumbo of melodrama and beautiful writing. — Christian Science Monitor

The setting of Jonis Agee's multigenerational portrait of a family that definitely is haunted, and most likely cursed, is a land drenched in somnolent, seductive beauty and capable of swift, fearsome violence. The same can be said of many of the characters in The River Wife, Agee's fifth novel, a sprawling tale of the women allied — either through marriage, money or birth — with fur trader and river pirate Jacques Ducharme. Their lives are governed by passion, their desires fueled by love, greed and jealousy. ... Agee's novel is fascinating. ... Agee is a gifted storyteller. Life is difficult but never dull in the house that Jacques built. — USA Today

This is the book keeping me up nights. — Birchbark Books

The unforgettable characters, the violent emotions and the historical sweep combine to make The River Wife her finest work to date, a masterpiece of historical fiction to be savored by all who love fine writing. — Sandra K Toro, Mobile Press-Register

This book is beautifully, masterfully written, ... Here, I propose, is where Jonis Agee most earns the adjective "masterful." It is easy to write pulpy historical romances, but it is tremendously difficult to write so that every detail has the ring and feel of truth, which is what you’ll find here. I despise finding technical or chronological errors in fiction; they remind me I’m reading "only" fiction. One fine sentence after another here, I’m convinced — as I am with Mark Twain — that this author knows the territory and won’t settle for less. The river is right, the dirt and smoke are right, the dense wetland brush is right, the horses are right, the way the men use weapons is right, the way the food is cooked is right ... and the love is too. We put up with so much from the people we truly love, and they with us. How else could Annie put up with husband Jacques' riverman companions, and his use of slaves to build their house and "Jacques' landing," an inn for boatmen? How else could Hedie put up with Clement's mysterious late-night doings, and what was it going to cost her in the end? I do not mean to make The River Wife sound soapy or bad-romantic, because this author is also expert in avoiding sentimentalism ... while at the same time she knows how to grip us page by page, sentence by sentence, so that we want to read on. Those limits are where all the Ducharmes seem obliged to live, notwithstanding the depth and decency of the women they marry and take to their own limits — giving this novel a classical unity and authority almost lost in our time. The River Wife is not only strongly recommended — it deserves a place in the modern American canon. — Phil Hey, Briar Cliff Review


Acts of Love on Indigo Road

Coffee House Press, 2003


In this stellar collection, Jonis Agee explores all the detours on the crooked road of love. No one is better than Jonis Agee at capturing the bone-deep desire and big-eyed longing of a hardscrabble, small-town life. This major collection, highlighting Agee's astonishing literary achievements, includes powerful new stories and a comprehensive selection from her critically acclaimed books Pretend We've Never Met, Bend This Heart, A .38 Special and a Broken Heart, and Taking the Wall. Jonis Agee's stories are as broad as their landscape, spanning the Great Lakes and traveling through the Great Plains on a straight shot to the heart. The New York Times refers to Agee's short fiction as the "... clear-eyed reports of someone who sees things as they are, not as she would wish them to be" and each story in this collection is raw, deeply memorable, and dedicated to brutally introspective and truthful moments. In Acts of Love on Indigo Road, Agee's characters continue to dream big and love deep while rushing headlong into the awareness that, finally, there are "only the dead to bear witness to what acts of love can do to the world." — from the jacket

In this collection of extremely short stories, novelist and story writer Agee ... offers little glimpses into the desperate lives of people living on the edge. This it not say that these stories are without hope but that sometimes victories can be so small as to be apparent only to the victor. Often, the stories take place in dying towns in remote locales. ... Agee writes convincingly, often in the first person, from both male and female perspectives and spanning generations. In addition to 25 new stories, this volume includes selected stories from four previous collections, including Taking the Wall and A 38. Special and a Broken Heart, which is a real bonus for smaller libraries. Recommended for all short story collections. — Library Journal

Terse, edgy and explosive. ... Agee's flair for stunning conceits and turn-on-a-dime plotting dominates throughout, and her feel for the gritty underbelly of blue-collar American life belies an equally impressive talent for poetic, elegiac writing. ... an unsentimental chronicler of desperate people trying to find happiness with the odds stacked against them. — Publishers Weekly

Jonis Agee's short stories are thick with the dirt and gravel of small towns, fast cars and people straining to make sense of one another. Her characters, most of them living in the Midwest, are cleareyed about their less-than-perfect lives. Where they turn for solace becomes the defining moment in many of these stories, almost half of which are new, the rest pulled from her previous collections. Particularly haunting and surreal is "The Waiting," in which a plane crash and the resulting array of corpses and personal objects has an unusual effect on a community of old folks whose kids have moved away and forgotten them. In "Good to Go," Agee uses agile but homespun metaphors to unpack the fate of a car-racing family whose good luck lasted a year and a half, with dreams "tumbling out hot and fresh like clothes from the dryer." By turns desperate and moving, Agee's stories are fine-tuned to a certain eccentric kind of small-town America. — New York Times Book Review

Agee specializes in sharp-edged, unsentimental miniatures. ... Agee's stories are trenchantly witty and eloquent evocations of the close-to-the-bone lives of housebound women and speed-craving men: farmers and picklers and orchardists, men who live in storage units and trackside trailers, the two wives of a bigamist who meet to compare notes. Acts of Love on Indigo Road is a very fine compendium of two decades of work. — Washington Post

Jonis Agee writes of life on the edge of the blue collar. The guy who runs the fix-it shop. The waitress with the thin hair and big heart. The revved-up dreams of a demolition derby family. In Acts of Love on Indigo Road, Agee collects new and previously published work in an enjoyable career showcase. — Midwest Living

Memorable and pungent characters. Agee's clear, lucid prose offers a poised clarity in stories that may be bitter, darkly humorous or matter-of-fact. No matter, these are stories about real people. What makes this collection special is the humanity Agee weaves into each story. — Lincoln Journal Star

Acts Of Love On Indigo Road is an anthology of new and selected short stories by acclaimed author Jonis Agee that poignantly epitomize small-town life, and dealing with daily trials while striving for something more. Humble yet involving narratives fill the pages of this emotional and evocative collection. Acts Of Love On Indigo Road is an impressive and extraordinary anthology which is a "must read" for Jonis Agee fans and admirers. — Midwest Book Review

Compelling entertainment. ... Agee's at her best when she's most subtle, as in two of the new stories, "Cleveland Pinkney" and "Earl," both brief, guarded snapshots of betrayal, where blue-collar realism is touched with a bit of impressionistic mystery, and the moment of truth — whatever it will be — lies just outside the margins of the story. — Minneapolis Star Tribune

Agee specializes in short, short stories that rarely go beyond five pages. Her characters are often small-town and rural folks who work hard and sometimes dangerously. ... Agee's stories are powerful because of what she leaves unsaid. — St Paul Pioneer Press

Many of the residents on Indigo Road — a place just beyond the pavement where the road turns to gravel or dirt — are down a lap but not out of the race. Those who populate the 25 new stories in this collection work dead-end jobs, make ends meet, and they make do in love, despite its sometimes glaring imperfections. In Indigo Road, readers will find both humanity and hope as characters chase love and each other with all the optimism of a dog let loose on the trail of a passing car on a dusty road. — Minnesota Women's Press

At their best, her fictions are wonders of concision, expert in the way they distill the lives and crises of her mainly blue-collar, small-town characters. ... Agee's stories are trenchantly witty and eloquent evocations of the close-to-the-bone lives of housebound women and speed-craving men: farmers and picklers and orchardists, men who live in storage units and trackside trailers, the two wives of a bigamist who meet to compare notes. Acts of Love on Indigo Road is a very fine compendium of two decades of work. Literature at its best — The Examiner

Acts Of Love On Indigo Road is an anthology of new and selected short stories by acclaimed author Jonis Agee that poignantly epitomize small-town life, and dealing with daily trials while striving for something more. Humble yet involving narratives fill the pages of this emotional and evocative collection. Acts Of Love On Indigo Road is an impressive and extraordinary anthology which is a "must read" for Jonis Agee fans and admirers. — Vacation Book Reviews

... wryly sympathetic tales ... Ann Arbor Observer

The Nebraska native ... has staked a claim as small-press fiction's correspondent among the blue-collar set that spends its weekends down at the track. — The Rake

If it is possible for a writer as good as Jonis Agee to grow even leaner, meaner, and narrate even darker devastating truths about dead-end lives with luck gone sour than she ever has, this is it. ... she's broken the craft of traditional storytelling wide open with her short-short fiction format. Acts of Love on Indigo Road is a marvelous compilation spanning a quarter-century of Agee's fiction-making. ... Like the equally hardened, scorched, wind-swept, and ice-pick-sharp prose of Annie Proulx, another western female author who knows what gritty love is all about; and like the grotesque and gothic misfits of Flannery O'Connor, who are haunted equally by death and by life; and like Terry Tempest Williams, mining ancestral landscapes of her soul in southwestern geography, Agee buries her mind's fingers deep into soil and psyches, and does not blanch from ugliness or danger, from physical or spiritual nakedness: it's jolting addiction, pared down to the bone. — North Dakota Quarterly


Sweet Eyes

Bison Books, U of Nebraka Press, 2003


"What I wanted to do was to convey an archetypal female experience, I wanted to show what it was like for a woman to go on an inner journey that did not necessarily lead to the domestic." — Jonis Agee
Agee skillfully braids present and past into a rich, meaty tale that captures American small-town life. ... This is a multileveled and sensitive novel about victimization and the struggle to defeat it. ... She clearly shows herself to be a significant new novelist. — Chicago Tribune

There's enough sprawling vivacity here to let Agee do for Divinity, Iowa, what Larry McMurtry does for Texasville: create a comfortable, lived-in world. — Kirkus Reviews

Sweet Eyes is not The Divine Comedy, but this extraordinary first novel echoes that masterpiece's ambition to map the moral geography of the world. Confining herself to the small-town life of Divinity, Iowa, Agee's narrator, Honey Parrish, passionately struggles to sort good from evil in the struggle for a better life. ... A big, complicated book about small-town life, in the great American tradition of Faulkner, Willa Cather, and Sherwood Anderson — Philadelphia Inquirer

Jonis Agee has taken possession of small-town America. She knows the seasons of the countryside and both the beauty and ferocity of America's heartland. Honey Parrish, Agee's heroine, not only sees the complex relationships of her town, but tells us about them with humor and pathos. Sweet Eyes is a strong, assured performance. — Lawrence Thornton

Sweet Eyes may come as startling news to those who think nothing much goes on between America's coasts. Divinity, Iowa, is a boisterous traffic jam of human desires and follies, secrets and squabbles. And Jonis Agee depicts the rural backdrop so keenly that, beneath the noisy lives of her amazing characters, you'll swear you can hear the corn grow. — Susan Dodd

While Agee demonstrates that the roots of psychosis and violence so often start within the family, she also makes a case for the family's importance and for the necessity of self-esteem — writing with fearless precision and evocative detail. — Publishers Weekly
Agee has a fine ear for dialog, and the pacing of this novel is sure. It is also fun to read, with prose as clean as the edge of a new spade. — Library Journal

Ms Agee's novel takes us through a year in Divinity, from the April snowstorm when Honey first becomes involved with Jasper to the summer of the following year and the centennial parade. That progress is appropriate: it is in the midst of nature, in harmony with the seasons, their months threaded together by the Fourth of July or Appreciation Day or a Halloween dance, that these people live. Most of them are farmers, they live in nature, with the weather, their shoes thick with mud and manure. That physical closeness to the natural world underscores all the best imagery in Sweet Eyes. Agee gives us an urgent sense of the primitive force of life, of the oppression of heredity and of the fundamentals of human nature. ... Ms Agee is a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape. — New York Times Book Review


The Weight of Dreams

Penguin, 1999


Jonis Agee's acclaimed fiction has established her as a visceral, lyrical interpreter of the interplay between family legends and reality, the land and its inhabitants, the forces of nature and those of the human heart. Her landscapes are primitive, her characters intense and magnetic, her themes mythic even as she "celebrates the gritty, scarred layers of the daily world with specificity and wisdom" (Chicago Tribune). In The Weight of Dreams, she has written a compelling tale about a young man caught between desire and responsibility who learns that the power of human dignity is far greater than that of money or social standing. At seventeen, Ty Bonte's life revolves around the seasons and the work to be done on his father's Nebraska Sandhills ranch. Long abandoned by his mother for the comforts of town life, Ty learns from his father that violence is as much a part of being a man as hard work. When he and his drinking buddy, Harney Rivers, beat up two young Indians from the nearby Rosebud Reservation and leave them to die, Ty flees from home and the arrest warrant that has been issued for their crime. Ty settles in Kansas, making a quiet but good living as a horse trader. Reinventing himself as his own kind of man, he tries to forget his past — the sudden death of his brother, the rejection by his mother, the drunken beatings by his father, and the night he and Harney drove onto the Rosebud Reservation. He takes in Dakota Carlyle, a woman who seems to find solace in horses but rarely in people and who has her own past. But before Ty and Dakota have a chance to make a life for themselves, Harney Rivers suddenly reappears and commits an act of shattering brutality that forces Ty to return to Nebraska. His quest for retribution, resolution, and redemption culminates in a furious and mesmerizing courtroom battle between the two men. The Weight of Dreams is a tale of greed, power, and violence, and of a land that is as brutal and strong as its inhabitants. It confirms yet again that Agee is "a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape" (The New York Times Book Review). — from the jacket

Here's the real novel for horse lovers. And here is a riveting story, shot through with sorrow, passion, a portrait of the disappearing West, a boyhood out of Dickens, and a most satisfying romance. It's Jonis Agee at her best. — Frederick Busch

An engaging, mysterious and ultimately moving book. Agee knows the geography cold, both physical and emotional. She peels back the stereotypes and with startling clarity allows us to look in on the slow-motion moments upon which whole lives turn. — Tom McNeal
With its contemporary story, this marvelous and haunting novel captures perfectly the history of American Indians and Anglo-Americans in the Midwest. It is an epic that places Ms Agee among the likes of Louise Erdrich as our best chroniclers of the region. — Greg Sarris

The Weight of Dreams is a book you'll want to sink into, its vast and rich landscapes, its broken and hopeful characters, its broad reach through time and space, and every hidden corner of the human heart. Jonis Agee tells this story with consonance and generosity, a finely tuned ear and the spirit as wild as a Sand Hills horse. — Pam Houston

Agee tells a good story ... emotionally satisfying. — Library Journal

Emotionally satisfying. — Booklist

Returning to the themes of her 1993 Strange Angels with a detour through the badlands of Russell Banks, Agee offers a rambling saga that includes an abuse-riddled Nebraska family, a hideous crime, a slow path to redemption, and the love of a good woman. ... Riveting scenes of ranch life and the grimly glorious Nebraska countryside. — Kirkus Reviews

Jonis Agee has written an intriguing tale that centers on a beautiful but severe land. — Book Survey

Jonis Agee's acclaimed fiction has established her as a visceral, lyrical interpreter of the interplay between family legends and reality, the land and its inhabitants, the forces of nature and those of the human heart. Her landscapes are primitive, her characters intense and magnetic, her themes mythic even as she "celebrates the gritty, scarred layers of the daily world with specificity and wisdom. — Chicago Tribune

Against the stunning backdrop of a vanishing West, The Weight of Dreams intertwines the passion and sweep of Larry McMurtry with a narrative of love and family as compelling as those of Rosellen Brown or Jane Hamilton. ... A novel of greed, power, and violence — from a "gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape." — The New York Times Book Review

[We] believe in Agee's people, in their mixed motives and unresolved conflicts and uncertain futures, just as we believe in the harsh and beautiful land they live in. — Los Angeles Times

Deeply affecting. Agee's tale about loss and regeneration gathers majestic force with each page. — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

One of the best books of the year. — St Louis Post-Dispatch
A beautiful novel of the American plains and the secrets of the last frontier. ... Haunts the reader long after the last page is turned. — Baltimore Sun

Agee knows the darkest secret of the New West — the ever-present, distorting power of greed and New Money. ... After an un-clichéd climax in a reservation courtroom, the novel leaves readers with a modest promise of redemption, in a vast landscape "where it seemed perfectly reasonable to dream small, ordinary lives that took up the land and gave it back at the end." The Weight of Dreams is neither small nor ordinary; it's a prairie wind blowing through the stuffy rooms of contemporary literary fiction. — Minneapolis Star Tribune


Taking the Wall

Coffee House Press, 1999


As the engines roar and the checkered flag waves, these stories tear across their rural landscape with the energy of a Winston Cup race. Like WP Kinsella's minor league ballplayers, Jonis Agee's drivers, pit crews, mechanics, and their families live in small towns, eat at truck stops, and have a hard time keeping their dreams from destroying their lives. From the garage to the kitchen table, from demolition derby to NASCAR, A gee's hapless heroes open our eyes as they take the wall. The wildly popular sport of auto racing is a backdrop in these stories for exploration of the creative and destructive aspects of obsession. In farm houses, mobile homes, and roadside trailer courts, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters all try to figure out how to keep their families running as smoothly as their cars. Taking the Wall is rich with details about racing and rural life, and richer yet in insight into that part of the human spirit that just doesn't know how to quit. Agee takes a personal and compassionate look at the grab bag of individuals linked together by the obsession that makes them a community. — from the jacket

From the first lap to the checkered flag, Taking the Wall is a great ride. — Jimmy Vasser, 1996 CART Champion

Tender strains of compassion run through these stories of people who live on the edge of a world of compression ratios, jack men and pit stops. ... Taking the Wall is a beautifully written book, filled with grace and wit, a book that will leave you with the comforting feeling that the author not only knows but cares about the characters she has created. Jonis Agee takes us beyond the fierce world of the race tracks where people pay for their mistakes and into the quieter world of their domestic lives where they face their humble longings and disappointments. — Jim Heynen, author of The One Room Schoolhouse

Agee's collection of bittersweet stories dissects the rough world of auto racing from the working-class perspectives of drivers, pit crews, fans, family and other hangers-on. While "taking the wall" — crashing into it — is the worst possible scenario, Agee's characters secretly wish for the excitement, horror, and suspense it offers: will the driver walk away from the fiery wreck? ... Agee's parsimonious language is stamped with a stark, forceful clarity. This is a stellar collection about blue-color folk, their plucky and despairing relationships and their dreams of speed and glamour. ... If this book were a movie, it would be a noisy midwestern starring Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, and Sissy Spacek, with Martha Plimpton as the feisty young grease monkey working at the Glory to God garage, across from the Curl Up & Dye Hair Salon. — Publishers Weekly

Car racing is somewhere below wrestling and fishing for me, but I was very, very moved by these stories about race car families and hteir aspirations and heartbreaks. This is universal stuff, and any writer who can compare motor oil to honey deserves our attention. — Carl Lennertz, Book Sense 76, Bookselling This Week

You don't have to be a motorhead to relate to the characters in this new collection from Agee. Though the lives of the race-car drivers, mechanics, and pit crew workers depicted here revolve around auto racing, the stories are about their struggles with spouses, lovers, parents, and children. — Library Journal

Stock-car races and demolition derbies are the settings for Agee's newest collection of short stories, which explores the lives of people who dream (usually futilely) of escaping their small-town, small-time lives in the American heartland and heading for bigger cities, brighter lights, and better cars. — Booklist

Agee's absorbing new collection of short stories, Taking the Wall, is set in the world of auto racing, but it's really about those times in life when we have to switch gears. ... Much of the power in Agee's short fiction lies in what's left unsaid. ... By writing just enough and nothing more, Agee forces us to imagine the rest. ... spare, muscular short stories. — The New York Times

Jonis Agee's stories unfold with headlong energy. Almost all of Taking the Wall relates to automobile racing — demolition derbies, stock cars, swamp buggies, Winston Cup challenges — Agee goes deep into the language of this world, and her paragraphs dive and turn abruptly from one to one to another, inside and out the drivers' minds, even into their resigned humor. — Ruminator Review

Jonis Agee knows a lot about people, and as much (or more) about forgiveness. ... Agee makes us believe in old-fashioned things: that love heals, blood is thicker than water, and that you can’t put a price on loyalty. — The St Paul Pioneer Press

Agee's characters are everyday people, achieving the sublime through prose as plain as it is evocative — the toughest kind to produce, as any honest scribe will tell you. ... These tales, however, are less about burning rubber and revving engines than the revolutions of the human heart. — Minneapolis Star Tribune

The danger of "taking the wall" is an undercurrent that runs through these stories, from the driver in "Over the Point of Cohesion," who obsessively studies the printouts of his pit crew trying to figure out what he did wrong to have the wreck that ended his career, to the mother in "Caution," grievously reliving the last time she saw her race car driver daughter. — Denver Post

Consistent with that unheroic view of the sport, Taking the Wall is a book about the races that aren't won, the cars that quit running, and, as the title implies, the moments when a driver crashes and bursts into flames. — City Pages


Strange Angels

Penguin, 1999


Jonis Agee's previous novel, Sweet Eyes, was named a New York Times Notable Book and was praised as "an extraordinary first novel." In her new novel, Strange Angels, Agee has created a deeply moving tale that evokes the Nebraska sandhills and the contemporary West, and explores the power of familial and cultural myths. The sandhills have always loomed large in Agee's imagination as a place where people "can't escape the natural world, where there is an ongoing discourse with the elements that forces living things in conjunction, stripping them to their essential natures." In this setting, the three children of Heywood Bennett, recently deceased rancher and freethinker, do battle with each other and the power of their father, who continues to exert control over them, even from the grave. Arthur, outraged at being denied his place as the family's sole legitimate heir, tries to destroy his bastard brother, Cody. Kya, the free-spirited sister both brothers adore, searches for her mother and her Lakota heritage on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation. And Cody, who has cowboyed on the ranch since the age of fourteen, falls in love with Latta Jaboy, the older widow next door. Early in the nineteenth century, the Nebraska sandhills were referred to as the Great American Desert — and avoided. By the late 1880s, ranchers discovered that the grass-covered hills and plentiful waters were perfect for raising cattle. Yet the region has remained relatively sheltered from the extreme cultural and technological shifts of the late twentieth century — satellite dishes, for example, only recently brought television to the sandhills. Agee captures this somewhat isolated world filled with cowboys, cattle, small towns, Indian reservations, and huge stretches of rolling prairie. Strange Angels is at once a beautifully written family saga, a powerful love story, and a mesmerizing evocation of the contemporary West. With this her second novel, Jonis Agee confirms once again that she is, as the New York Times Book Review has described her, "a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape." — from the jacket

Agee has written a beautiful, rough novel that her characters inhabit so persuasively we become their kin. — Frederick Busch

Because Agee succeeds so well in bringing this countryside to life, at first glance Strange Angels seems a realistic work. One soon comes to realize, however, that despite some remarkable descriptions — including a cattle branding, a slum in a Lakota Sioux reservation, a rodeo — one is not in the realm of realism at all. Instead, the novel is better understood as a romantic fable of the Old West that at once reveals and mythologizes the dark depths of human nature and experience, a tale presided over by ghosts, where the protagonists are all outlaws of one kind or another. ... The novel's power and significance reside in Agee's ability to connect to and enlarge upon the myth of the Wild West. She vividly portrays cowboy life in all of its degradation, violence and romance. — Chicago Tribune

Inspired ... A rollicking love song to a dying breed. — Kansas City Star
With Strange Angels, Agee spins a captivating web of the rugged West, stormy romance and struggling siblings. — Orlando Sentinel

Jonis Agee engages in conversation with the verve of a racquetball player who focuses on continuing the rally. Yet she punctuates talk with laughter, relishing moments when she drops something off the wall. Her writing has this intensity too. Agee conveys tangled relationships at a canter that carries readers along, yet they still see the flowers, the particulars of her beloved Midwest. — St Paul Pioneer Press

"My family comes from Nebraska, and I can tell you one thing: they don't talk about anything personal. My mother's favorite saying was 'If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all.' Nebraskans talk about taxes, beef, corn and the weather, and almost nothing else. Why this should be I cannot say, but I think it is the landscape. Here, the material world dominates. The sky crowds out everything else. Perhaps to know the secret of the Great Plains is to lack the will to say it out loud." This is what is so refreshing about Jonis Agee's Strange Angels, a novel as emotional as an improvisation in a New York City acting class. Here is a Nebraska where people say everything there is to say, and more. ... Ms Agee's description of a working ranch is stunningly authentic. She deserves great praise for her use of ordinary language. Her prose is economical, tasteful, precise. Ms Agee is also a poet, and it shows. She knows the real beauty of these lives. — William Hauptman, New York Times Book Review

Jonis Agee's new novel, brawling and turbulent with the passions of contemporary cowboys and cowgirls, will add luster to an already shining literary reputation. ... Agee has written a book that is a celebration of our mortal progress from self-love to a love of all that is other. — Kelly Cherry, Minneapolis Star Tribune

A big, rowdy ... western ranch saga about three Nebraskan siblings of mixed ancestry who battle it out with each other when the patriarch dies. ... After Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, yet another western twist on Lear seems ill-advised, but Agee peoples a lived-in landscape with wild, vivid people. — Kirkus Reviews

Highly detailed characterization combined with a strong regional sense of place for ranch and small-town life are this lengthy novel's strongest points, while Native American lore (Kya's mother was Lakota Sioux) adds a certain texture. — Library Journal

Although Strange Angels is primarily an exploration of individual character, the drama is played against a stunning backdrop of the Nebraska sandhills, a wild, lonely and still largely unknown part of America, perhaps the last vestige of a still unmythologized West. This is harsh, unglamorous country, isolated and dangerous. Ranch work is grinding, filthy and unrelenting; rodeos are brutal, and drunkenness often offers the only possible solace and escape. The author is unflinching and graphic in her description of the realities that have formed and shaped her characters. [A] powerful novel. ... In creating a world seldom encountered in contemporary fiction, Agee has virtually reinvented the Western novel. — Los Angeles Times Book Review

It's a love story, a passionate account of a liaison between two very tough people. ... The author is master of the magic that can inhabit small moments ... The family battle set in an isolated land at times gives the novel an epic cast that can seem at odds with modern sensibility. Ours is not an epic age. But Strange Angels remains a compelling read throughout. — Albuquerque Journal

Strange Angels is, above all, an ode to a rural way of life. To the book's men and women, the needs of livestock and chores always take precedence over the needs of individuals. — Omaha World-Herald

Strange Angels is a marvelous read, a deft job of workmanship and a vivid — if sometimes relentless — depiction of wounded souls. ... This is a brave, sometimes frightening novel, full of honesty and hope. — St Paul Pioneer Press

Strange Angels, redolent of saddle leather and Nebraska grit, proves again how Jonis Agee is crazy in love with her characters' world-battered bodies and ground-shaking dreams. She has written a beautiful, tough novel that they inhabit so persuasively we become their kin. — Frederick Busch

In country that is as rugged and unforgiving as the human heart, Jonis Agee transports her readers into the West we all came west to find. Here the women are barely greenbroke, the men handsome charismatic cheats; even the ghosts compel us to listen hard to their too-late wisdom. Both visceral and lyrical, Strange Angels will leave readers just as I was: tapping my fingers anxiously for the next Agee novel. — Jo-Ann Mapson

Strange Angels is both Cody Kidwell's initiation into mature love and Jonis Agee's tribute to a tough and vanishing West. A risky and breathtaking novel. — Robley Wilson

An ardent and large-hearted tale of unruly affections in tough country. — Deirdre McNamer

Agee writes knowingly of ranching life, the Indian nations and the modern realities of reservations. ... She brings a heartfelt lyricism to her evocation of the vanishing West. — Publishers Weekly

Agee has achieved a rare balance here between grit — horse thievery, knock down fistfights, rodeos, and blizzards — and breathtaking lyricism, sensuality and catharsis. — Booklist (starred review)

When the powerful patriarch of a Nebraska ranching family dies, his three sons discover he has left each of them an equal share of his ranch. As they struggle with a common bond to their larger-than-life father, their jealousy and mistrust threaten to destroy them all. —


South of Resurrection

Penguin, 1999


When Moline Bedwell fled the small town of Resurrection, MO, at the age of sixteen, she vowed she would never come back. Now, twenty years later, having lost her family, she returns for what she thinks is a two-week trip to sell her parents' home. But Moline soon becomes embroiled in the fight to save her Aunt Walker and Uncle Able's farm from the clutches of the Heart Hog Corporation and finds herself falling in love again with Dayrell Bell — the wild hillbilly boy she abandoned to an unjust jail term when she escaped her hometown all those years ago. Secrets, danger, and the ghosts of the past converge to draw her into battles of progress and tradition, race and class, and her own ambivalence toward a new life that must be rooted in the old. In South of Resurrection, Agee's superb prose and gritty characters tell a compelling and passionate story of going home again and learning that — maybe — you never need have left. — from the jacket

In the generous scope of a novel, readers can enter a landscape, a tradition, a history, and the lives of people they are glad to know. It is a pleasure and a revelation to read a novel as resonant and unaffected as South of Resurrection. — Sandra Scofield

You can go home again, the heroine of Agee's earthy, deeply satisfying latest discovers — you just can't expect home to be easy, or life there particularly simple. Agee (Strange Angels, 1993, etc.) has always demonstrated a distinctive skill for creating complex, tough-minded, open-hearted women. ... Agee gently peels away the many layers of history that accumulate when a family has lived in one place for a very long time. There's a pleasing and believable succession of secrets revealed. And Moline and Dayrell's wary courtship is among the most brambly, and original, in recent fiction. One of the best novels by anyone writing today about the old, long-settled corner of the South. — Kirkus Reviews

It's an achy-breaky narrative, heavy on the pedal steel guitar, about a woman who returns to her hometown after 23 years and, among other things, falls in love with a beery old redneck named Dayrell. ... Agee's sentences have an easy swing to them, and she has an eye for funky detail. — New York Times Book Review

Some novelists build their stories around plot, others around characters. Jonis Agee builds her novels upon the small but luminous details. In her new novel, South of Resurrection, Agee finds these details in the landscape and history of the Missouri Ozarks. She names the plants and birds, the snakes, the very rocks that line the streambeds. She knows the way streams flood and what the floods do to roads, houses, and cemeteries. She knows the patterns of the weather and what they can do to the people who live there. She knows the way boots are made. Her characters rise up out of these details, out of their intimate relationship to the place they live. This is a book where people seem to live toward their fates, and we follow their progression with an almost tragic sense of inevitability. — Ann Arbor Observer

Jonis Agee has written an intriguing tale that centers on a beautiful but severe land. — Manatee


A .38 Special and a Broken Heart

Coffee House Press, 1995


Honest, biting, and bittersweet, A .38 Special and a Broken Heart is a rich collection of stories by critically acclaimed author Jonis Agee. Packed with emotional detail and compelling narrative force, these stories are about people who love, lose, and try again. Persistence and strength, betrayal and forgiveness, weakness and acceptance, mercy and mystery, life and death — all find themselves played out in this collection. — from the jacket

This new volume in the Coffee-to-Go Short-Short Story series explores the tangled intersections of love and death. Most of the 29 selections are "momentary stories" that "fling themselves at you and you don't have any choice but catch them." ... Most of her tales are from the perspective of the wronged woman, but in "Listen" she anticipates and rebuts the objections of a pompous male critic. "I told him that you have to be careful when you break horses that you don't break their spirit too." This spirit resounds in the splendid economy of Agee's deft characterization and sharp, visceral imagery. — Publishers Weekly

This latest volume in the publisher's "Coffee to Go" series reveals almost thirty selections of short stories which have minimal plots and strong impacts. Agee's special style provides a strong and unique set of circumstances spiced with memorable observations of human nature. — Midwest Book Review

Sexual disconnections play a part in many of the stories in Jonis Agee's wonderful new collection A .38 Special and a Broken Heart, but Agee turns them into a kind of wry, rueful comedy. The women in Agee's stories, mostly middle-aged and marinating in the funk of broken relationships, stare out at the world through bloodshot eyes and deliver acutely observed descriptions of their bad nerves and bad dreams.
Agee's women are down but not out. "She'd been a Cadillac kind of girl for a while, then she was just any kind of girl," Agee writes in a sad and lovely five-paragraph story titled "There Has to Be a Beginning." "She'd go here and there in the cars they drove because walking was something she only did before she learned to get in with the boys who leaned out of windows and called to her." The woman's sharp memories offer an odd form of hope: "She just wanted to disappear into the good light nerve her flesh turned when a boy got satin smooth and begging hands, and she never had to say no if they never asked." Agee's stories brim with tragicomic moments: one pregnant woman, upon hearing the news of Kennedy's assassination, tries to "get upset enough to miscarry"; another woman worries because her therapist has a "signed picture of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention" hanging on her office wall; yet another blunders while trying to commit suicide and moans, "Now I've embarrassed myself to myself. I'm so ridiculous, even death won't have me." — Hungry Mind Review

A .38 Special and a Broken Heart is short-short story writing at its best. It deserves to be read, read again and passed to every story-loving friend on down the road. — Albuquerque Journal

Jonis Agee is in my estimation a fearless writer and this a startling collection with staying power. These stories will stick with you. — Amelia Franz

This short-short story collection contains more than two dozen brief tales, most set in the rural plains landscape familiar from her other fiction and in the lonely hearts of characters more experienced in dealing with failure and loss than with joy and success. Death figures in Agee's tales, but so does forgiveness; despair and the burden of family share these wide open spaces with fragile hope and moments of kindness. Agee's fans — and readers who appreciate the immediacy of good short-shorts — will find much to relish here. — Booklist


Bend This Heart

Coffee House Press, 1989


These very short stories have, at best, the compressed energy and the intensity of good poetry. — Alice Adams

The stories in Bend This Heart are like fresh potato chips. You can't eat just one. The more you eat, the more you want. A delicious mind at work. — Diane Wakoski

Abrupt, restless, and memorable, Jonis Agee's stories have a straightforward honesty about love, sex, and obsession, and the structures we evoke to contain them. They have the texture of a sleepless night in which we are hooked to the bone by everything we have desired. In story after story, the mask drops away from gentility, and we come face to face with the truth. These stories are beautiful because of their courage: there is nothing they are afraid to say. — Charles Baxter

In this volume you'll find stories sharp enough to cut your fingers on. Some of the best are short. You can read them in five minutes, but they will stay with you all day. Agee has a clear and unsentimental eye for our cruelties, our wishes, our attempts to love and our attempts to be free. She is a remarkable craftsman of short stories that combine speed with substance. — Marge Piercy

The title of Jonis Agee's new collection of short stories, Bend This Heart, is instructive, an invitation to make someone feel, not to break a heart but to bend it — to change its shape, to turn it in a different direction, to subdue it — to make a heart work. These are 23 love stories, though the phrase needs qualification. They are the clear-eyed reports of someone who sees things as they are, not as she would wish them to be. ... Keenly alive with language, [making] both the heart and the mind work. — Amy Hempel, New York Times Book Review


Pretend We've Never Met

Gibbs Smith, 1989


In Pretend We've Never Met, her 1989 collection of short narrative sketches, Jonis Agee drew with a strong, spare lyricism a portrait of a rural Midwestern landscape she called Divinity, Iowa. — New York Times Book Review

Her stories take risks and a rewarding number succeed. — Perry Glasser, North American Review